Because not all seminarians have undergraduate degrees in biblical interpretation, I normally start my hermeneutics courses with the basics of literary context and cultural-historical context (my specialty) before turning to specific genres and other more detailed questions.
These principles matter because God inspired the Bible textually, in literary form. Most genres in the Bible also existed, in at least a fairly close form, in the biblical world outside the Bible, so principles relevant for reading such genres matter. That God gave us the Bible in this form means that we need to attend to the particular shape in which God inspired these documents, shaped to address those concrete realities. The God who speaks to us in Scripture will speak a message consistent with the message that God originally inspired.
This article, however, addresses a different aspect of interpretation — one that I used to simply take for granted when I taught hermeneutics. This is an aspect that typically receives less emphasis in academic settings, even Christian ones, though it is part of all of our Christian traditions.
Hearing the Author
Even though we have the Bible in textual form, it is not just any text. For us as Christians, it is God’s Word, and it not only spoke in the past but continues to communicate to us God’s message.
When I read a work by a friend or mentor I know, such as my teachers E. P. Sanders or D. Moody Smith, I hear it in their voice. When we read the Bible, there is a sense in which we can get to know many of its authors, such as Nehemiah or Paul. But because Christians hear the Bible as inspired by God, there is a sense in which we can, most importantly, learn to hear the divine author who speaks through these various human authors in various ways. As we grow to know God’s voice better in Scripture, we better recognize God’s heart toward us. This also helps us recognize when the same God speaks in our lives in other ways.
A Spirit hermeneutic is a thus relational hermeneutic: we know the God of the Bible and therefore read the Bible from a vantage point of trust in him.
Reading with Faith
Many lay readers of the Bible intuitively expect to hear God’s voice there. Such expectancy is a sign of faith. Often readers do not know how to approach the text as a text, but God meets them in their study because they have faith. Sometimes they go amiss, because faith is effective only when it has the right object — in this case, what God actually says.
But as academicians we sometimes go to the other extreme. Influenced by the Enlightenment, sometimes our institutions teach interpretive techniques mechanistically, as if an academic reading alone were enough. Even after we have finished our contextual study, however, we still need to approach the text in faith, embracing its message for us today.
Many Christian scholars through history, such as Chrysostom and many Reformers, engaged in careful exegesis. Nevertheless, they also emphasized our need for faith and the Spirit’s illumination. Luther, for example, insisted that God’s Spirit is present and active in a special way in Scripture. One should read the Bible alongside prayer and meditation. “Experience is necessary for the understanding of the Word,” which must “be believed and felt,” he declared (cited in Craig G. Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture [Baker Academic, 2015], 198). Calvin insisted that people could understand God’s Word only through the Spirit’s enlightenment (see, e.g., Yuzo Adhinarta, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Major Reformed Confessions and Catechisms of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries [Langham, 2012], 38). Wesley urged readers who found some biblical passages hard to understand to seek God in prayer (see Joel B. Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and Formation [Baker Academic, 2011], 107).
We read from diverse cultural starting points, but one special vantage point is uniquely Christian: the vantage point of faith in God. Reading the biblical narrative with faith means reading its message as true. That does not mean debating every historical detail or treating biblical creation narratives like scientific treatises. It does mean that the God of the Bible is our God; the Jesus of the Gospels is our risen Lord; and the Bible’s verdict on human moral failure is what we see reflected in the world around us continually.
Letter and Spirit
It is possible to focus so exclusively on textual details that we miss God’s heart that the text is designed to communicate (note Jesus’s warning in Matt 23:23-24).
Paul explains that he and his colleagues are empowered not as ministers of the “letter” but as ministers of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:6). The “letter” may refer to the mere written details of the law; Jewish teachers played even with matters of spelling. Paul observes that Moses veiled God’s glory when addressing Israel, but he removed the veil when he was before the Lord (2 Cor 3:16; Exod 34:33-35). Paul laments that his people’s hearts remain veiled when the law continues to be read (2 Cor 3:14-15). But as the Lord revealed his glory to Moses in Exodus, so, Paul declares, the Spirit reveals God’s glory now (2 Cor 3:17-18).
For us, no less than for Moses, the veil has been removed (2 Cor 3:14-18). When we read Scripture, we read to learn about the Lord and be transformed by him (2 Cor 3:18).
Implications for Hermeneutics
Because my wife is from Africa, I remain keenly aware that most of the global church recognizes that the God who poured out the Spirit on the day of Pentecost did not pour the Spirit back afterward! (On the Spirit in Acts, see, e.g., Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 vols. [Baker Academic, 2012–15], 1:519–28, 678–82, 804–31, 886–911).
While background provides essential context for understanding Scripture, the Spirit provides us with the needed spiritual context for appropriating it as God’s word to us (1 Cor 2:11-13). The Spirit reveals Christ and God’s character as we read Scripture (see 2 Cor 3:15-18).
Grammar matters, but our ultimate interest is the Spirit’s message spoken through that grammar. When we truly hear the Spirit’s message in the text, we commit to it. Exegesis in the usual sense focuses on the text’s original horizon; today some postmodern approaches focus only on present horizon. Exclusive attention to a present horizon without attention to the original one leads to overwriting the original inspired meaning with an unrelated one. Yet it is by hearing the Spirit’s inspired message in the text that we can communicate its points most accurately for hearers today.
Connecting the two horizons, without obliterating either of them, is often considered the role of hermeneutics. The Spirit can guide us in exploring and researching both horizons, but we need the Spirit especially in bridging the gap between them, in applying the principles of the text to our lives and communities. The Spirit may draw analogies consistent with the biblical messages to the first audiences and with the larger framework of the Spirit’s message in biblical theology.
A Spirit-led hermeneutic is not just making exegetical discoveries in our study and then going on our way. Ideally, we live our whole lives in light of Scripture.
Two Ways to Read the Bible
In light of the larger context of Romans, the contrast between the law of works and that of faith in Rom 3:27 probably refers to two ways of approaching Scripture (cf. 8:2; 9:32; 10:5-10). Approaching Scripture for works involves priding ourselves on our rules, traditions, or doctrines. Approaching Scripture for faith means that reading Scripture renews our trust in and dependence on God.
Thus, our understanding of the law is transformed. It may provide moral guidance, but it also reminds us of God’s activity in our own lives. We hide his word not merely on paper but in our hearts; it is God himself working within us who has not only accepted us in Christ but who also produces the moral fruit of his presence.
Accordingly, as we approach Scripture, it is appropriate for us to pray for understanding, humble and obedient hearts (see e.g., Ps 119:18, 27, 34, 73, 125, 144, 169). In Luke 24:45, it was the Lord himself who opened the mind of his disciples to understand the Scriptures; in 24:32 believers’ hearts burned in them as he explained Scripture. Let us pray for this!
The Word of God for the People of God
Exegesis rightly and necessarily concerns what the biblical writers were saying first to their ancient audiences. But once we understand the texts in their context, we also read them to believe and embrace their message, inclining us to live them out in our own contexts.
Believers’ cultures vary, but we all read Scripture as God’s people living in the promised messianic era:
Romans 15:4: “For whatever was written beforehand was written to teach us, so that through the endurance and the exhortation/encouragement provided by the Scriptures we should have hope.”
1 Corinthians 10:11: “These things happened to them to serve as examples, and they were written down to warn/instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”
Paul affirms that, “these things happened to them” — they involve incidents in history. But he affirms that they were recorded so that subsequent generations could learn from what happened to them. This remains especially true for us as Christ’s followers, “on whom the ends of the ages have come.”
As Jesus’s followers, we should thus understand ourselves as living in a time of fulfillment, the already/not-yet time between Christ’s first and second comings. Recognizing that Jesus’s coming brought a new phase in the fulfillment of God’s promises, the earliest Christian writers repeatedly affirmed that the final era, the “last days,” had dawned (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; 2 Pet 3:3; 1 John 2:18). Although they expected a future consummation, they also insisted that they experienced a foretaste of the future kingdom through the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 2:9-10; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14).
Ancient historians and biographers often plainly and explicitly tell us that they expected their readers to learn moral and ideological lessons from their true accounts. In 1 Cor 10:11, already noted, Paul cites the examples of the OT Paul uses Abram’s faith (Gen 15:6) as a model for believers (Rom 4:1-25).
Human examples in biblical narratives are often negative, but how we see God acting in the Bible can shape our understanding of how God works. We learn not only from what we consider key verses of Scripture but also from patterns of how God works in Scripture. Expecting God to continue to act today in ways consistent with how he acted in the NT is closely related to biblical faith. We cannot always predict what God will do, but we can always be confident that God is working. What God did in the Bible God sometimes does, in various times and places, today.
Reading with the Humble
The majority of Christian readers in today’s world live in the global South and are economically poor. Scripture often indicates that God is near the broken but far from the proud (Ps 138:6; Prov 3:34; Matt 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5). If God normally reveals himself especially to the broken, why should he reveal himself differently (only to elites) among those who read (or hear) the Bible?
Seeking knowledge is important (Prov 4:7; 15:14; 18:15), and seminarians should take every advantage of their opportunity to acquire it. Nevertheless, in academia we are unfortunately sometimes arrogant about our knowledge; knowledge does, as Paul warns in 1 Cor 8:1, tend to lead us to overestimate our status. With few and usually private exceptions, it was not the intellectual elite of Jesus’s day, but the lowly, who followed him. “I praise you, Father,” Jesus prayed, “for you hid these matters from the wise and intellectual and revealed them to little children” (Matt 11:25//Luke 10:21). Only those who welcome the kingdom like a child will enter it (Mark 10:15).
The humble read Scripture not only to reinforce their knowledge, but with faith — and often in a situation of desperation — to hear God there. They read with dependence on God, trusting the Holy Spirit to lead them.
Responsible exegesis still requires us to explore the meaning of the biblical texts in their original contexts. But sometimes even non-Christian scholars do that. Where Christian readers go beyond non-Christian ones is that we believe these texts as Scripture. Study that does not lead to embracing and living biblical experience misses the point for which the biblical texts were originally designed.
[Adapted from my Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost [Eerdmans, 2016); and my “Pentecostal Biblical Interpretation/Spirit Hermeneutics,” in Scripture and Its Interpretation: A Global, Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible, ed. Michael J. Gorman (Baker Academic, 2017), 270–83.]